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Voices of 2019: 12 powerful Times of Israel blog posts

An unscientific, non-comprehensive selection of writing that blew minds, wrenched hearts, changed views and tickled funnybones

We published nearly 10,000 posts on The Times of Israel’s blogging platform in 2019, so it’s a certain kind of folly to suggest that 12 pieces can represent anything beyond one editor’s idiosyncrasies. But if there’s a single impression to be had from this selection, it’s the rich diversity of voices. That diversity is a core value for our very open marketplace of ideas, and a small triumph against an increasingly polarized and toxic discourse within the Jewish world.

The voices here include well-known thought leaders and delightful new discoveries. Several pieces were selected from among the year’s most popular posts, and still others are here because in my view they deserve more attention than they got. Some tackle the biggest and gravest issues of the day — most urgently, the rise of violent anti-Semitism — and others, which at first blush may seem less significant, show us the world in small, personal grains of sand.

Have a look. And, if you’re inspired to come aboard and join the conversation in 2020, you’re welcome to apply for a blog.

1. Jewish myopia in a perfect storm of anti-Semitism

In January, renowned historian and author Deborah Lipstadt published Jewish myopia in a perfect storm of anti-Semitism, a bracing, bleak and prescient appraisal of the state of Jewish security. The rise in anti-Semitism was already undeniable — the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, the deadliest anti-Jewish attack in US history, had taken place just nine weeks earlier. But Prof. Lipstadt, author of “Antisemitism Here and Now,” warned that partisan allegiances and political expediencies were obscuring the sources and nature of the “this torrent of hatred” coming from right, left and Islamic extremists. Twelve months later, Lipstadt’s assessment remains alarmingly relevant and required reading.

2. The American ‘Zionist’ assault on Israel

Daniel Gordis came into 2019 swinging with The American ‘Zionist’ assault on Israel, in which the Shalem College VP tackled what he sees as a growing split between Jews in Israel and those in the US. Gordis called on both sides “to accept that we are invariably going to continue disappointing each other, because American Judaism and Israeli Judaism are, by this point, very different animals.” His toughest words were for US progressives seeking to “save Israel from itself,” whom he pegged as either naively misguided or secretly hostile. Whether his stand rings true or rankles you, the post, aimed at naming the problem as a first step toward solving it, is a springboard into the crucial conversation about Israel-Diaspora ties, and a preview of Gordis’s latest book, “We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel.”

3. My taxi driver invited me to his seder

Do yourself a favor and restore your faith in humanity with the sweet story of a cabbie who fulfilled the Passover injunction to welcome the stranger. In My taxi driver invited me to his seder, Rebecca Zeff, an immigrant from Florida, tells how her bummer of a day turned into something magical: “In this world of strangers, the Jewish people are not strangers in Israel,” she writes, “and most of all, we are never strangers to each other.”

4. Our Alex’s IDF service was his salvation, not his downfall

Alex Sasaki, 1991-2019 (courtesy)

After Corporal Alex Sasaki, an IDF volunteer, died in March while on leave from the army, there was some public speculation over the cause of his death.

Alex’s father Steve wrote Our Alex’s IDF service was his salvation, not his downfall, explaining that the family’s pain was made worse by baseless talk of his death as a suicide. And then he gave us Alex — an elegiac portrait, in words and images, of a kind young man who thrived during his army service. The post, which we published on the eve of Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers, allowed those who knew Alex, and those who had only heard of him, to remember him for how he lived rather than focusing on how he died.

5. Reading Amos Oz in Vancouver

(Illustration by Avi Katz)

Mike Polischuk’s Reading Amos Oz in Vancouver hit the spot when I read it a few days before Israel Independence Day. Rich in detail and humor, the piece brought to life the world of Mike’s childhood in Haifa’s Russian-speaking immigrant community. I could feel the pain of his adolescent estrangement in my own chest.

It’s a warts-and-all story for a country that celebrates its immigration but downplays a parallel story of alienation and emigration. And it has a redemptive ending — signalled in the title — when Mike, from his safe distance, is finally able to fall in love with Hebrew culture; finally emotionally available, as he writes, to explore “the trauma and the fleeting hope of Israeli existence.”

6. Israel made us convert to Judaism and left my brother behind

In June, after 18-year-old Solomon Teka was fatally shot by an off-duty police officer in Haifa, rage in the Ethiopian community spilled out onto the streets for days of protests and mayhem. It was a moment to pay attention, not just to the property destruction and blocked Ayalon highway, but to the longstanding grievances of a community so often muffled in the din of Israel’s rowdy public discourse.

A window into the Ethiopian-Israeli experience came via the voices of 5 young women, all students in Jerusalem, including Sewalem Werkneh, whose post, Israel made us convert to Judaism and left my brother behind, made clear that the protests expressed deep pain, bottled up inside for years, that erupted because her community’s anguish fell on deaf ears.

7. My only-in-Israel moment at the Central Bus Station.

(Illustration by Avi Katz)

“This man is pushing past all of us. How DARE he! ‘Excuse me!’ I say, standing as tall and wide as possible.”

Yes, sometimes you just have to take a stand. But, um, sometimes you don’t. Sarah Tuttle Singer, The Times of Israel’s social media maven, blogger extraordinaire, and author of “Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered,” learned that lesson the hard way and lived to tell the very entertaining tale in My only-in-Israel moment at the Central Bus Station.

8. Netanyahu, the end

Illustration by Avi Katz.

When Yossi Klein Halevi wrote Netanyahu, the end, the unprecedented third round of elections was still hypothetical. One of the most widely read posts of 2019, the piece is not so much a prediction (which will be borne out or disproved in March 2020) as it is a sweeping rebuke that calls the prime minister “a Samson blinded and bound to the pillars of power,” and laments that “It is no longer possible to separate what Netanyahu does to keep us safe with what he does to keep himself out of prison.”

Klein Halevi, author of the bestselling “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” is consistently riveting — you can find more of his posts on his Times of Israel blog, including his again-relevant post, The desecration of Israel, which characterizes the mainstreaming of the Otzma Yehudit party as a validation of Kahanism’s sanctification of “hatred and vengeance in an apocalyptic messianic vision.”

9. Tenth for a minyan

The changing position of women in Modern Orthodox communities remains a core theme in the Jewish world, including, very much so, for Times of Israel readers and contributors. This year, several women blogged powerfully about their experience of reciting Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, and the wide variety of responses they received in different communities.

In Tenth for a minyan, Shira Pasternak Be’eri, whose father, the beloved musicologist Velvel Pasternak, died in June, captures the complexity of her own feelings, and of a community in flux. Without minimizing  the frustration of sometimes feeling disregarded (“What is it like to watch people being counted but not be counted?”), Shira illuminates “the deep processes of evolutionary change” in the small, kind gestures of the male worshipers standing near her — and sometimes by her — just on the other side of the mechitza.

10. As Syrian artillery shells fell, they just kept walking

Illustration by Avi Katz

October marked 46 years since the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war. Yuval Krausz, who often writes about his experiences as a Golani combat soldier who fought, and lost friends, in that war, painted an otherworldly scene of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries visiting Israeli soldiers on the festival of Sukkot during the heat of war.

“I was no longer afraid of the unknown,” wrote Krausz in As Syrian artillery shells fell, they just kept walking. “I had seen men, clad in black, beards, their sidelocks flowing in the wind, walking towards my band of brothers in outpost 104, carrying a lulav and an etrog, while artillery shells were exploding all around them.”

11. Same old anti-Semitism, different Jews

The growing alarm felt by Jews in Europe and the US has not been lost on Knesset Member Yair Lapid. The Yesh Atid party chair has traveled abroad frequently to address these increasingly embattled Jewish communities. In November, he told a pro-Israel European leadership conference in Paris — the text of which is published in Same old anti-Semitism, different Jews, –“I’m no pacifist. I don’t believe in facing hate with love.”

Lapid’s tone — angry, resolute, defiant — hit home for a great many readers, evoking, as it did a core Zionist vision of Israel as refuge, a port in the storm; defender and fighter for all Jews everywhere. “Jews are done being afraid,” Lapid says. “We’ll fight back. In the legal arena, the press, if we need to use physical force – the State of Israel knows how to do that.”

12. How does it feel to be white?

(iStock)

The debate over whether or not Jews are white had remarkable traction this year, a sure sign that the question is a proxy for a larger set of polarizing and overlapping cultural and political issues touching on privilege, race, intersectionality, colonialism and more.

Masha Kisel, an American Jew who immigrated from Russia when she was 9, has no doubt she’s white (“all I had to do was look in the mirror”), and that she has enjoyed the privilege that attends to whiteness. But in How does it feel to be white?, she asks why Ashkenazi Jews don’t quite feel white, and in her answer, she brings a generosity of spirit not found in the sort of zero-sum smackdown the topic so often triggers. The feeling Jews have of vulnerability, of ‘not feeling white,’ suggests Kisle, is not a denial of others’ suffering, it’s a tool of solidarity.

About the Author
I edit The Times of Israel's Ops & Blogs section, and I also co-host the storytelling live show and podcast WhyWhyWhy! (That needlework in my cover photo is by Yocheved Herschlag Muffs.)
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